If one were to attempt to answer the question ‘What is the purpose of life according to Judaism?’ they would probably start with the opening verse in the Torah itself - “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Doesn’t this make the most sense? Rather than running around all over the place looking into obscure passages in the Talmud or the midrash, why not get it straight from the ultimate source, the Bible. And where better to look in the Bible than the very verse that deals with creation?
Well, we are attempting to answer that question of the purpose of life according to Judaism, so why haven’t we looked at that verse? The problem with the verse is that it doesn’t state either explicitly or implicitly what God’s purpose was in creating the heavens and the earth. It just says that God created them in the beginning. It’s a little frustrating to realize that this crucial question could have been answered right off the bat, but wasn’t. Why didn’t the Torah get it over with right then and there and answer the ultimate question? Maybe, just maybe, the Torah’s intention was to leave the question open-ended, to allow us the chance to grapple with it and to come up with our own answers. In a sense, the history of Judaism - the long, sometimes sad, sometimes glorious history of Judaism, is really the history of the Jews’ attempt to answer this very question. At least we haven’t been wasting our time.
Has anybody dredged up an answer from that first verse? It turns out that they have indeed. It was just too good of an opportunity for some rabbi of the midrash to miss. They found the answer in the very first word of the Torah, the Hebrew word B’raysheet, which does indeed mean something like ‘In the beginning’. However, it doesn’t mean it exactly. The Hebrew word has a weird quirk in that the ‘t’ letter at the end adds the conjunction ‘of’ to the basic phrase. So the actual translation is ‘In the beginning of’. The entire verse should read ‘In the beginning of, God created the heavens and the earth’. But what on earth does that mean? The sentence doesn’t even make any sense! How could it be that the very first verse in the Bible, arguably the most famous sentence in all of literature, doesn’t make any sense?
The midrash didn’t miss this golden opportunity. One particular midrash, an obscure text called ‘The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva’ that may date from the 9th century, has a quite clever approach. The word B’raysheet contains two Hebrew parts, a preposition that means ‘In the’ and a second part that means ‘beginning of’. That second part, according to this midrash, was open for reinterpretation. Instead of reading the word literally, the midrash read it as a kind of code word that stood for other things in the Torah that were described with this word ‘raysheet’. This midrash focuses on three things (there actually are other things that are used in other midrashim to answer this same question): Torah, Israel, and fear (of God). All three are called ‘raysheet’ somewhere else in scripture, and, this midrash claims, are hinted at here as being the behind the scenes reasons for creating the heavens and the earth. What’s this one all about?
First of all we must define these three things. Torah is the written text itself, either the Chumash or the entire Tanakh. Israel is not the land of Israel but the people of Israel, the Jews. Fear of God is the odd man out here. The first two are concrete things that obviously would have very prominent places in the rabbis understanding of the world, so it makes sense that they should be singled out as the purpose of creation. Fear of God, as important as it is, just doesn’t seem to belong in this group. Indeed, the grandfather of Biblical commentators, Rashi, in his commentary on this opening verse, quotes a version of this midrash which for some reason leaves out fear of God. But the version we’re looking at has it, so what are we supposed to make of it?
The midrash provides the sources in scripture that associate these things with the word raysheet. These verses should clue us in as to how the author of this midrash saw these three things as the reason for the creation of the heavens and the earth. The first two verses suggest that the idea of the Torah was a message to humanity and the Israelites were the bearers of that message. These two components represent the beginning of the revelation of God’s intention.
What was this core message? What is the message the Jews are supposed to be carrying? This is where the third component fits in perfectly. It is the fear of God. Before we get into this touchy subject, it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean the fire and brimstone, tremble before the Lord approach that is commonly associated with it. Here it called a form of wisdom. Wisdom is a concept that we have already explored, but it never hurts to review it a little.
Wisdom is a deep concept, one that is central to Judaism and the Torah. It is not the same as knowledge or understanding. These are functions of the brain or mind, gathering of information, thinking about it and analyzing it to come to some deeper idea of what’s going on with whatever it is one wants to figure out. They are among the most powerful tools of humanity, and are valued as such in Judaism. But they are on a different plane than wisdom.
Wisdom is not a faculty of the mind. It is a tool of the soul. The soul is the spiritual component of our being. It is our connection to God, the ultimate source of the spiritual. Wisdom is the soul’s program for getting the most spirituality out of life. It is almost like the Wikipedia of the soul, providing the soul with the guidance that it needs to make the right choices as it gropes through the maze, climbing or sinking as it deals with the opportunities and frustrations of life. All peoples have had their supply of wisdom, tailored to fit the needs of their time and situation.
This midrash uses that remarkable scriptural claim that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. Of all the great wisdom out there - and there is a considerable amount - the beginning of it all is the fear of God. What is the fear of God? It is the awareness of God’s presence in the world and in one’s life, and the consciousness that God wants something from us. People may not like the idea of God looking over their shoulder or getting into their heads and laying a guilt trip on them. But what we don’t like may not be the worst thing for us. The bottom line is that there is no better way to stay on the right path in life than a little fear of God.
But fear of God is really more than just a corrective measure. In its deeper sense, it is the consciousness that what we do has ultimate meaning. What we do in our lives, how we use our time in this world, really matters. God is the source of that inner sense of meaning that we all possess, no matter how hard we may try to deny it. That sense lies deep in the soul and it subtly reminds us of its vital message. You matter. What you do matters. That voice that speaks this wordless message is the voice of God instilling within your soul this foundation of all wisdom.
There is a counterargument to all this. The counterargument essentially claims that what we do does not matter, since we are nothing but dust tumbling around for a few years on a mound of dust tumbling around in space. We are just molecules and quarks, energy and hot air. To this claim the voice speaks. It whispers to us all, to believers and to atheists, when we sense a commitment to some cause, or find someone or something really worthwhile to care about. The modern-day version of the ancient verse in the Bible ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God’ would read: ‘The first thing you need to know as you go about the journey of life, is that your life matters, and what you do with it is has ultimate meaning.’
Insider critics have described the Jews as ‘messengers who have forgotten their message’. The Jews have done and seen an enormous amount in their glorious and turbulent history. They have built two national temples and witnessed the destruction of both. They wrote the books of the Old Testament and the tomes of the Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash. The kept themselves together in exile by studying the law and arguing incessantly over its interpretation. They wandered all over the world, struggling against hatred and injustice, and surviving pogroms. They made money and achieved fame in the sciences and the arts. They went through a holocaust and rebuilt their ancient homeland. But it is possible, that all this has been one grand sideshow, an amazingly complicated, sometimes tragic, sometimes inspirational, skirting of the main issue. Perhaps the Jews were created to demonstrate the message that there is indeed meaning to life, and have become distracted by more pressing issues. Alternatively, perhaps the history of the Jews is this very message. If you are a Jew reading this, perhaps it is time to ask yourself what you are doing to make this message heard.
We live in a world that is increasingly inundated by the feeling that nothing really matters in the long haul. We are all going to die in the end, and even while we live, it all too easily seems like a grand game. Convincing yourself or others that life truly has meaning is no easy task in today’s world of instant gratification and long-term frustration. But it can be done. Maybe some religious text will inspire you. Maybe some story of perseverance or love will hit the spot. Or maybe it will be just a good-old personal challenge that drives you along the path of meaningfulness.
If none of these work here’s a suggestion - read ‘Desiderata’. It’s a poem by Max Ehrmann, an obscure German-American poet about whom nobody ever would have heard if he hadn’t written this remarkable work. Better yet, listen to the marvelous rendition done in the early 70’s with its stirring chorus that could move the most cynical pessimist to tears:
‘You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.’
Ehrmann hit it right on the nose with this poem. His words quietly declare that life matters regardless of any indications to the contrary. This message can be found everywhere if one chooses to open one’s eyes and ears and heart. It is the message of the soul begging for meaning. It is the beginning of wisdom and the reason for creation.
Food for Thought
Why is it that we frequently have to bend over backwards to convince ourselves that life indeed has meaning? Why isn’t it obvious to everyone at all times?
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